How to Be A Good Manager, According to 7 Team Leads

Asking “how to be a good manager” is a lot like asking “how to be a good person” in that there isn’t a single right answer that applies to everybody. That’s truer now than ever before, when our rapidly evolving world and work culture are changing the very definition of what it means to be a “good manager.”

Is the best manager the one whose team is most productive? Happiest? Most challenged? And how can managers gauge their success and have confidence in their decision-making? The fact that these questions are being asked more and more indicate that the management role is in flux.

In 2020, Gianpiero Petriglieri wrote in HBR that management is going through a “mid-life crisis.” He called for the creation of a “truly human management…That cares for what work does and feels and means to us, not just for what we can do at work and how.”

Being a “humanist manager” means focusing on your relationships with your team members. But for many of us, managing interpersonal dynamics is the trickiest part of the job. So, we asked managers from seven companies (including our co-founder Chris Zaugg) about how they handle these challenges. We hope their answers can help you discover what being a “good manager” means for you.

Note: Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Hone Your Soft Skills

All the managers we spoke to agreed that great managers are great communicators. You can read every article on time management, download all the latest productivity apps, and attend a hundred seminars about “finding your management style,” but the most important tools you need to succeed are empathy and communication skills.

Don’t run from conflict

Handling conflict between team members (or between you and a team member) is one of the most stressful parts of leading a team. According to our 2020 manager survey, just 6.3% of respondents said they felt “very prepared” to deal with their team’s interpersonal dynamics as a first-time manager.

But the managers we spoke to emphasized that conflict can be an opportunity for growth, if managers approach it with care.

Listen, listen, listen. To both sides. Try to understand the ACTUAL conflict, which may be different than they say it is. What sounds like a major conflict could just be a personality issue, or simply different experiences surrounding the “way things should be done”. Then, meet together with the people, and ensure this is a safe place by laying down some ground rules. After agreeing on the issue to be discussed, instruct them to make the discussion about the ISSUE, not the person. At the end of the meeting, restate the problem, whatever steps you’ve made to alleviate it, and make room for a follow-up meeting.
-Chris Zaugg, Co-founder, Uptick

Some conflicts are actually healthy and constructive. Knowing when to intervene, or not, is a matter of experience and how much trust you have in the team members’ ability to find common ground. When you need to step in, listening and leading by principles are key to reach a resolution that the team members buy into.
-Max Andaker, Co-founder and CPO, CoScreen

Managers should take conflict between team members seriously. Team dynamics are important for creating an inclusive and respectful company culture. They also dictate speed, quality of work, and the number of positive outcomes a team can achieve. Taking a hard look at the root cause by discussing the issue with each employee separately will be key in understanding the “why” behind said conflict.
-Alan Roth, Head of Product Marketing,

Talk less, listen more

Effective managers aren’t like professors, lecturing on their favorite topics. They’re more like therapists, who spend most of their time listening and then extract the most important information from what the other person says.

When in person, listen more than you talk.
-Max Andaker, Co-founder and CPO, CoScreen

[When mediating team conflict] start by getting each individual’s perspective and understand the situation from both sides.
-Franciska Dethlefsen, Head of Growth, Iteratively

Have empathy and listen. Your job is making them succeed, not the opposite.
-Will Fruhwirth, Assistant Dean & Director of Admission, Willamette University MBA

Be a coach, not a quarterback

No one wants to be a micromanager, but it can still be a struggle to step off the field and lead like a coach. But the managers we spoke to emphasized the importance of motivating your team by delegating and giving them opportunities to step up. And giving them the right opportunities means helping them discover their strengths and working with them to set goals.

Bring a coach mindset; your team players should be good at their position, but don’t be afraid to encourage them to learn other things. It’s up to a manager to strategize correctly with their team’s skills and strengths.
-Alan Roth, Head of Product Marketing,

Be clear that success in the role is not only about what gets done, but to grow as a professional. There is always a next step for everyone and getting in the way of that is just counterproductive. By equally showing both trust in their current roles and challenging your team members to reach further you can become part of their success rather than limiting it.
-Max Andaker, Co-founder and CPO, CoScreen

Managers should empower employees and not lead with insecurity—team members’ careers are on the line, too.
-Anjana Vasan, Content Marketing Manager, Animalz

Use a Gentle Touch for Tough Feedback

Prioritizing your relationships with your team means caring enough to engage on tough issues. But in our manager survey, over half of the respondents said they felt unprepared to give critical feedback. Here’s how our respondents balance care and honesty.

Communicate one on one, and in a timely manner

One-on-one meetings are the ideal time for you to talk to your team member about critical issues, including tough feedback. It’s also important to address problems quickly, rather than letting them fester and shocking your team with negative performance reviews. So, even if the conversation can’t wait until your next scheduled check-in, you should still deliver criticism in private.

[Managers should deliver criticism] one-on-one, in private, and by making (good) intentions clear from the get-go.
-Anjana Vasan, Content Marketing Manager, Animalz

Feedback should always be timely (asap) and shared 1-1 (don’t call someone out in a group setting).
-Franciska Dethlefsen, Head of Growth, Iteratively

[Challenging feedback] should be given in private: No one wants to feel publicly called out or to be seen as ‘failing.’ Getting criticism is a vulnerable experience, so I try to create a safe space by doing it in private. It should be as quick as possible: The longer something hangs out there, the more weighty and scary it feels. If I can give feedback quickly after something happens, we can clear the tension and move forward.
-Aviva Pinchas, Head of Growth, Parabol

Tailor the message to the person

When it comes to giving constructive criticism, you should have more than one “management style.” The tactics that work with one team member can make another one cry! So, make it your mission to find out the best approach for each person on your team.

I find that you need to adapt your approach based on the individual: Some value directness whereas others prefer more of a sandwich approach, where you include positive feedback with your constructive criticism to soften the blow a little.
-Franciska Dethlefsen, Head of Growth, Iteratively

It’s also important to understand how your team member responds most positively to constructive feedback. Do they like it “straight up” or “couched”? Do they like a little at a time or do they prefer to “rip the band-aid off” all at once? Make sure you personalize the feedback in a way they can most easily metabolize it.
-Chris Zaugg, Co-founder, Uptick

Managers should consider a few questions: Where is the employee in their professional journey, what skills are they expected to showcase in their current role, what is reasonable quality/timing for tasks, how are their behaviors matching the company values and culture. Then consider, what exactly do I want the employee to improve—giving a specific example, allowing the employee to reflect then jointly building a plan to try a different approach will enable an open conversation.
-Alan Roth, Head of Product Marketing,

Prioritize Employee Engagement and Professional Development

Being a good leader means helping your team feel fulfilled in their roles. And, of course, it also means making sure your reports are meeting their productivity goals. But these two priorities don’t have to conflict, since your team will produce better work when they are engaged, challenged, and feel that they have opportunities for career growth.

Help team members find their paths

Not every person who works under you has their own five-year plan, and some may not even know what their strengths are. Good managers prioritize their team’s long-term professional growth by helping them set goals and encouraging them to learn new skills.

There are several steps managers can do to support a team member’s professional development. The first step is understanding what is important to each individual. Having an open conversation about goals and aspirations is critical to setting the right expectations and open the door for a candid dialogue. Without knowing what is important, the manager can sometimes approach development in too broad a way, i.e., everyone should join a seminar, or everyone should present in front of leadership.
-Alan Roth, Head of Product Marketing,

Sometimes people don’t know what they don’t know, so you have to start by finding out what they like doing, what they’re good at, and how they might like to apply those things to their future. Give them some feedback on where you see them growing. Then, ask the “what would you like to be doing in 3 years?” question. Once you get some semblance of an answer (it may require some digging), ask about what they see as next steps. From there, depending on your circumstances, give them some time in their workday to work on their development. It’s VITAL to provide training and development opportunities to the modern workforce!
-Chris Zaugg, Co-founder, Uptick

The best managers are those that listen with intent; they are seeking to truly understand who their team members are and what they look to achieve. Then they put the pieces together by delivering the right roadmap, playbook setting the tone for people’s individual strengths to shine along the journey.
-Aviva Pinchas, Head of Growth, Parabol

Check in regularly and offer support

Establishing long-term goals for your team members is an important first step, but those goals can fall by the wayside if you don’t follow up about them. So, carve out time during one-on-ones to check their progress and make sure they have the resources they need to succeed.

You need a plan! A dedicated Google Doc or Notion page and regular check-ins. Ideally you have a budget too, so you’re able to support any courses or activities your team member wants to do. Have the individual drive the plan—you’re the mentor and advisor.
-Franciska Dethlefsen, Head of Growth, Iteratively

(Psst…instead of scattered documents and spreadsheets, try keeping track of everything in Uptick!)

Set the plan into motion by establishing what the employee can do and where they need their manager’s support. Document some clear goals. Do they need to stretch into bigger projects, do they need to develop their skills? If so, what can the manager do to unblock these goals?

-Alan Roth, Head of Product Marketing,

Managers can support their team members’ professional journeys by giving them opportunities to grow, whether projects or connections. If a team member wants to grow in a particular direction, consider giving them a project that will let them learn or flex their muscle in that space. If that’s not available, consider introducing them to someone who has done similar work or introducing them to thought leadership in the space, to build their knowledge.
-Aviva Pinchas, Head of Growth, Parabol

Show appreciation with praise and rewards

It’s essential to show your team that you value their hard work. If you’re not sure whether you’re giving enough praise, you probably need to step it up. But the managers we surveyed stressed that for positive feedback to work, it needs to be tailored to each individual.

General praise is nice, but useless. Be specific—write things down in a doc, especially if you have to compile feedback for end-of-year reviews. Include specifics and use examples so your team members can relate your feedback to their actions.
-Franciska Dethlefsen, Head of Growth, Iteratively

An emoji may be nice and provide short-term fuzzies; however, managers should also carve out time to break down a specific instance where employees shined. This means highlighting the situation, the behaviors that led to that situation, and the positive outcomes that came out. Individual praise is a good start; managers can turbocharge motivation with public/company callouts, selecting them for special projects and/or small gifts such as gift cards. Get to know your team well; this will help you calibrate what praise works best for each of them.
-Will Fruhwirth, Assistant Dean & Director of Admission, Willamette University MBA

You have to know your team to encourage them. What motivates them. Gifts? Words of encouragement? Money? Time off? Training opportunities? Be specific with them…think about each person as an individual! Once you have some tracks to run on, commit to revisit how they respond to your efforts, and make changes if necessary. This takes time and commitment.
-Chris Zaugg, Co-founder, Uptick

Good Managers Are In It for the Journey, Not the Destination

For all the managers we spoke to, being a good manager is all about the process. Success isn’t measured in quarterly reports but in moments of connection during one-on-ones, in team members who find their passion, and in creating a healthy work environment.

Celebrating those intangible wins can be difficult in a work culture that often cares more about employee productivity than their happiness. But when you learn to measure your success by your team’s well-being, you’re already on your way to being a better manager.

Subscribe below to get future posts from Michael